Missouri Supreme Court Rules Lawmakers Had No Power to Limit Conservation Spending

Missouri Supreme Court Rules Lawmakers Had No Power to Limit Conservation Spending

The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the circuit court, holding that the Missouri Constitution does not permit the General Assembly to limit the Conservation Commission’s authority to expend and use conservation funds for constitutionally enumerated purposes.

Missouri Supreme Court Building in Jefferson City, Missouri

The situation that triggered the lawsuit came in August 2020. The commission approved $1 million to buy 510 acres of imperiled prairie habitat in St. Clair County and $900,000 for payment in lieu of taxes on conservation lands. In the appropriations for that year, lawmakers had not included money for the payments in lieu of taxes and struck language from the appropriation bill allowing land acquisition. When then-Commissioner of Administration Sarah Steelman refused to honor payment requisitions, the commission sued.

In the majority opinion, the judges wrote that by removing the language allowing land acquisition and refusing to appropriate tax payment funds, lawmakers “invaded the constitutional authority of the Conservation Commission by attempting to limit the constitutionally enumerated purposes for which the Conservation Commission could use its funds.”

In the long-anticipated decision, the court split 4-3 over whether appropriation bills could bar the commission from spending money on land acquisition or for payments to replace lost property taxes from conservation lands. The majority decision, unsigned but supported by Chief Justice Paul Wilson and Judges Mary Russell, Robin Ransom, and George Draper, upheld a decision from Cole County Circuit Judge Cotton Walker, who found the commission can spend appropriated funds for any constitutional purpose. The state constitution spells out the duties and powers of the commission and provides a source of funds to carry out its mission, the opinion states.

While the constitution does offer some latitude to the Conservation Commission about exactly how to use appropriated funds, it does not allow the commission to ignore legislative decisions, the dissent by Judge Patricia Breckenridge stated. According to her opinion, the constitutional authority of the commission is subservient to the legislature’s appropriation authority. “That language does not convey the voters’ intent to grant the Conservation Commission powers within the power of appropriation,” Breckenridge wrote. “Instead, that language conveys only the intent that conservation funds must be spent by the Conservation Commission for the purposes designated in the constitution.”

The Conservation Commission was created by an initiative petition in the 1930s to take protection of land and wildlife out of political hands. Its powers were expanded, and a one-eighth cent sales tax enacted, in the 1970s to strengthen the department. That history, as well as the language of the constitution, shows the intent to limit legislative power over the agency, the majority wrote. “The very reason behind the Conservation Commission’s creation was to remedy the failure of existing government bodies in the 1930s, including the General Assembly, to set aside politics and properly manage Missouri’s conservation needs,” the opinion states.

Photo Credit
Jasperdo, Flickr
July 17, 2023